SCALIA’S VACANCY — NEWS v. OPINION

The battle lines are drawn: President Obama will name his choice to succeed Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court; Senate Republicans are determined to block it. One aspect has become striking: Which side has the better argument that history supports its position? It turns out, there’s another battle happening there: news versus opinion.

On the same day, February 16, 2016, two of the most widely read newspapers in the world, carried these contradictory headlines:

“In Court Fight, History Backs Obama” appeared in The New York Times.

“No Clear Confirmation Parallels in Recent Court History,” said The Wall Street Journal.

Who’s Right?

Unless you read both newspapers, you wouldn’t think there was any disagreement on the question of historical precedent for filling the current Supreme Court vacancy. The Times article appears on the paper’s op-ed page. But here’s the real kicker: The WSJ carries its version as a straight news item.

The Journal’s readers saw “news” declaring “no clear confirmation parallels” to the present situation. It cites and purports to distinguish only two earlier precedents.

In 1968, the Senate prevented President Lyndon Johnson’s lame-duck appointment of Justice Abe Fortas to succeed the retiring Earl Warren as Chief Justice and the naming of Judge Homer Thornberry to the Fortas seat. Eventually, President Nixon filled those vacancies. (The Journal doesn’t mention that it took Nixon two unsuccessful nominations — Haynsworth and Carswell — before getting Blackmun over the hump.)

The other Journal example is the oft-cited case of Justice Anthony Kennedy. A Democratically-controlled Senate approved him unanimously in 1988. Apparently believing that distinctions without a difference matter, WSJ reporter Brent Kendall notes that prior to Kennedy’s confirmation, the Senate rejected President Reagan’s first choice, Judge Robert Bork, and that his second choice, Judge Douglas Ginsburg, withdrew.

At the end of his article, Kendall identifies Jess Bravin — Wall Street Journal Supreme Court reporter with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a J.D. from University of California-Berkeley — as having “contributed to this article.”

Another Opinion

At best, The Wall Street Journal article is incomplete. Ironically, The New York Times op-ed includes more facts than the Journal’s news item. Professor Timothy S. Huebner notes: “On 13 occasions, a vacancy on the nation’s highest court has occurred — through death, retirement or resignation — during a presidential election year. This does not include the most recent and frequently cited example, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was nominated by Ronald Reagan in November 1987 to fill a vacancy and won confirmation from a Democratic-controlled Senate in February 1988.”

Professor Huebner continues, “In 11 of these instances, the Senate took action on the president’s nomination. In all five cases in which a vacancy occurred during the first quarter of the year the president successfully nominated a replacement.”

What’s the Difference?

The distinction between news and opinion matters.  Editors have a responsibility to make that difference clear, especially in our age of political polarization. Due to the power of confirmation bias, consumers of media tend to limit themselves to views they embrace. It keeps people comfortable in belligerent adherence to an understanding that may, in fact, be incomplete or even wrong.

In October 2014, PEW Research reported, “Those with consistently conservative political values are oriented around a single outlet — Fox News — to a much greater degree than those in any other ideological group: Nearly half (47%) of those who are consistently conservative name Fox News as their main source for government and political news.” Both Fox News and The Wall Street Journal are parts of the Rupert Murdoch family’s media empire.

Liberals tend to be, well, more liberal in their choices of news sources. According to the PEW study, “On the left of the political spectrum, no single outlet predominates. Among consistent liberals, CNN (15%), NPR (13%), MSNBC (12%) and the New York Times (10%) all rank near the top of the list….”

The predispositions of their constituencies create a special obligation for the media. There’s money in fomenting divisiveness. Blurring the line between “news” and “opinion” might advance a political agenda or sell advertising space, but it’s making the country’s problems worse.

In my opinion.

LEGAL EDUCATION’S STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

The recent New York Times editorial on the law student debt crisis didn’t attack all law schools as “scams.” Rather, along with Law School Transparency’s recent report, it exposed a soft underbelly. But in defending the bad behavior of others, many law professors and deans are doing themselves, their schools, and the profession a great disservice.

It’s a puzzling situation.

In my 30-year career as a litigator at Kirkland & Ellis, I encountered plenty of bad lawyers. I regarded them as embarrassments to the profession. But I didn’t defend their misconduct. Good doctors don’t tolerate bad ones. Gifted teachers have no patience for incompetent colleagues.

The Opposite of Leadership 

Yet the top officers of the Association of American Law Schools sent a letter to the Times editor that began:

“The New York Times fails to make its case on law school debt.”

AALS president Blake Morant (dean of George Washington University Law School), president-elect Kellye Testy (dean of the University of Washington School of Law), and executive director Judith Areen (professor and former dean at Georgetown Law and former AALS president) then explained why all is well.

If those AALS leaders speak for the organization, a lot of law deans should consider leaving it. Rather than serving the best interests of most law schools, publicly defending the bottom-feeders — while saying “no” to every proposal without offering alternatives — undermines credibility and marginalizes otherwise important voices in the reform process.

Using a Poster Child to Make a Point

The Times editorial looked at Florida Coastal, about which certain facts are incontrovertible: low admission standardsdismal first-time bar passage ratesaverage debt approaching $163,000 for the 93 percent of its 2014 graduates with law school loans; poor JD-employment prospects (ten months after graduation, only 35 percent of the school’s 2014 class had full-time long-term jobs requiring bar passage).

Florida Coastal isn’t alone among those exploiting law school moral hazard. Without any accountability for the fate of their graduates, many schools feed on non-dischargeable federal loans and the dysfunctional market that has allowed them to survive.

Predictable Outrage from a Inside the Bubble

In June, Scott DeVito became Florida Coastal’s new dean. In an interview about his strategic plans, he said, ““We’re going to have to build more on the parking garage because people will want to go here.”

Predictably, DeVito pushed back hard against the Times’s op-ed. (The newspaper published only a portion of his two-page letter.) He boasts that his school’s first-time bar passage rate was 75 percent in February 2015 — third best of the state’s 11 law schools. That’s true.

But the February session typically includes only 50 to 60 Florida Coastal first-time test-takers annually. DeVito doesn’t mention more recent results from the July 2015 administration, which usually includes 200 to 300 Florida Coastal grads each year: 59.3 percent first-time bar passage rate — eighth out of eleven Florida law schools.

From 2010 to 2014, the school’s July results were:

2010: 78.8% (7th out of 11)

2011: 74.6% (8th)

2012: 75.2% (9th)

2013: 67.4% (10th)

2014: 58.0% (10th)

Who among America’s law school deans is willing to defend that performance record? Their professional organization, the AALS, seems to be.

Facts Get in the Way

DeVito acknowledges that his students’ law school debt is high, but says that’s because, as a for-profit school, “taxpayers are not paying for our students’ education.” That’s a remarkable statement. Florida Coastal and every other law school receives the current system’s inherent government subsidies: non-dischargeable federal student loans, income-based repayment (IBR), and loan forgiveness programs.

Likewise, DeVito asserts that Florida Coastal students “repay their loans,” citing the school’s low default rate. The AALS letter makes the same point: “[M]ost law students…are able to repay and do. The graduate student default rate is 7 percent versus 22 percent for undergrads.”

That argument is disingenuous. The absence of a default doesn’t mean a graduate is repaying the loan or that the day of reckoning for deferred or IBR-forgiven debt will never arrive for students and taxpayers. In fact, it’s inconsistent to assert that law students “repay their loans” while also touting the benefits of IBR and loan forgiveness because students in those programs will never have to repay their loans in full. (And they still won’t be in default!)

Not Defaulting Is Not the Same as Repaying

A recent Department of Education report on colleges highlights the extent to which the absence of default is not equivalent to repayment. There’s no similar compilation for law schools, but an April 2015 Federal Reserve Bank of New York Report on Student Loan Borrowing and Repayment trends generally notes that while only 11% of all educational loan borrowers are in default, “46% of borrowers are current in their loans but are not in repayment. Only 37% of borrowers are current on their loan and actively paying down.” (Emphasis supplied)

As the New York Fed reports, the worsening repayment rate is exacerbating the long-term debt problem for students and taxpayers: “The lower overall repayment rate [compared to earlier years] helps explain the steady growth in aggregate student debt, now at nearly 1.2 trillion dollars.”

Righting Wrongs?

Finally, DeVito takes a noble turn, claiming that it “takes a for-profit entity to right a wrong — in this case the lack of diversity in law schools.”

In “Diversity as a Law School Survival Strategy,” St. Louis University School of Law Professor Aaron N. Taylor explains that marginal schools with the worst graduate employment outcomes have become diversity leaders: “[T]he trend of stratification may only serve to intensify racial and ethnic differences in career paths and trajectories.”

Rather than righting a wrong, it looks more like two wrongs not making a right.

A Few Profiles in Courage

To their credit, Professors William Henderson (Indiana University Maurer School of Law) and David Barnhizer (Cleveland-Marshall College of Law), among others, have embraced the Times’s message that Brian Tamanaha (Washington University School of Law) offered years ago: The current system is broken. Recognize it; accept it; help to lead the quest for meaningful reform.

Likewise, Loyola School of Law (Chicago) Dean David Yellen worries about schools that are “enrolling large numbers of students whose academic credentials suggest that they are likely to struggle gaining admission to the bar… [T]he basic point is an important one that legal education must address.”

The Real Enemy

DeVito’s effort to spin away Florida Coastal’s problems is understandable. Properly implemented, school-specific financial accountability for employment outcomes would put maximum pressure on the weakest law schools. Frankly, the demise of even a single marginal law school would come as a welcome relief. Since the Great Recession we’ve added law schools, not eliminated them.

That’s why most law schools and their mouthpiece, the AALS, should side with Dean Yellen and Professors Henderson, Barnhizer, Tamanaha, and others urging meaningful reform. To test that hypothesis, try this:

The next time someone says that introducing financial accountability for individual schools would be a bad idea, ask why.

The next time someone says that respectable law schools serving their students and the profession should not distance themselves from marginal players that could never survive in a functioning market for legal education, ask why not.

The next time someone says that a united front against change is imperative, ask who the real enemy is.

Then offer a mirror.

GAME-CHANGER?

Almost overnight, a persistently sad situation finally has many legal educators squirming. And rightly so.

The problem has been years in the making, as has been the profession’s unwillingness to address it. Federal funding mechanisms have combined with lack of accountability and non-dischargeability in bankruptcy to block the effective operation of market forces in legal education. Well-intentioned policies have gone terribly awry; they actually encourage misbehavior among many law school deans.

As law student debt soared into six-figures, calls for change produced the equivalent of catcalls from the “voice of the profession” — the ABA. Its latest Task Force report on the subject should embarrass anyone associated with it, including the House of Delegates that approved it. As the profession’s echo chamber convinced itself that all was well, hope for meaningful change was leaving the building.

But as it did four years ago, The New York Times has now aimed its spotlight on one of the profession’s dirtiest secrets.

The Paper of Record Speaks

In January 2011, The New York Times’ David Segal wrote a series that exposed the cynical gamesmanship whereby law schools inflated their recent graduates’ employment statistics. Through the deepening Great Recession, the profession still generated 90-plus percent employment rates for recent graduates. How? By counting every short-term, part-time, and non-JD-related job as if it were a position that any law graduate would want. Part-time greeters at Wal-mart, temporary baristas at Starbucks, and associates at Cravath were all the same in the eyes of that metric: employed.

The ugly truth surprised many prospective law students, but not the ABA, which had approved the schools’ misleading reporting methods. It turned out that within nine months of graduation, only about half of all new J.D.-degree holders were obtaining full-time long-term (defined as lasting a year) jobs that required bar passage. Within two years of the Times’ expose’, the ABA succumbed to public embarrassment and required law schools to detail their employment outcomes.

And It Speaks Again…

The overall full-time long-term JD-required employment rate has barely budged since the new age of transparency began, but law school tuition and resulting student debt have outpaced inflation. As applications to law school plummeted, many deans responded by increasing acceptance rates to keep student loan revenues flowing.

So now the focus has shifted from full disclosure to flawed funding, and the Times has entered the field of battle:

— On August 25, it published my op-ed on the law school debt crisis and the ABA”s feeble response. It went viral.

— On October 24, the Times’ lead editorial was “The Law Student Debt Crisis.” It, too, went viral.

— On October 26, the first page of the Times’ business section completed the trifecta with “Study Cites Lower Standards in Law School Admissions.” The article discusses Law School Transparency’s report documenting that bottom-feeder schools are exploiting unqualified applicants.

And Still the Naysayers Resist…

Previous posts discussed two letters-to-the-editor responding to my August 25 Times piece — one from a law professor at Texas A&M; the other from Northeastern’s dean. There’s no need to review them here. The latest Times’ editorial is generating similarly defensive vitriol from some law professors and deans who are determined to defend the indefensible.

For example, Professor Frank Pasquale at the University of Maryland School of Law (where the full-time long-term JD-required employment rate for 2014 graduates was 57 percent) fears that the Times’ October 24 op-ed will accelerate privatization:

“Private lenders are sure to be pleased by the editorial,” Pasquale writes at Balkanization. “Law school loans are lucrative for them because of extremely low student loan default rates for law school borrowers… The stage is now set for a bootlegger/baptist coalition: as prohibitionists cut off the flow of federal loans, private lenders line up to take their place.”

But The Naysayers Are Wrong…

Pasquale offers a clever turn of phrase, but his premise is incorrect. The widespread use of deferral and income-based repayment programs means that the default rate is not the most meaningful measure of whether a loan will be repaid. Actual repayment rates are. Depending on the school, repayment rates can be pathetic.

Professor Bill Henderson at Indiana University Maurer School of Law doesn’t share Pasquale’s confidence that private lenders would step into any breach that the loss of federal funds created. Henderson also notes, correctly, that private loans don’t come with deferral and IBR options that have kept nominal default rates low as non-repayment rates have surged:

“[P]rivate lenders would need to be confident that loans would be repaid. That likelihood is going to vary by law school and by law student, raising the cost of lending.”

Precisely correct. As I’ve suggested previously, tying the availability of law school loans to school-specific employment outcomes could allow the market begin exercising its long-denied power to correct the situation. It could also mean big trouble for marginal schools.

How About Holistic?

Pasquale also chides the Times for its narrow-minded approach: “[T]he paper’s biased view of higher education in general is inflecting its take on law schools. We can only hope that policymakers take a more holistic approach.”

How about a holistic approach that permitted educational debtors to discharge their private loans in bankruptcy? In that case, Pasquale’s “stage” would no longer be “set for a bootlegger/baptist coalition” whereby “prohibitionists cut off the flow of federal loans [and] private lenders line up to take their place.” Private lenders wouldn’t rush to make fully dischargeable loans to students seeking to attend marginal schools that offered little prospect of employment generating sufficient income to repay them.

How About A Constructive Suggestion?

Policymakers could revise the federal loan program to tie student funding at a school to that school’s employment outcomes for recent graduates. In fact, it could do that while preserving deferral and IBR programs. Add dischargeability of educational debt in bankruptcy and you have the beginnings of a holistic recipe for hope.

In that respect, Professor Henderson notes: “I have faith that my legal colleagues would do a masterful job solving the problems of higher education.”

Based on the profession’s track record to date, I fear that my friend’s sentiment reflects a triumph of hope over reality. But his key message is right on target: If the profession does not put its own house in order soon, someone else will.

Marginal law schools exploiting market dysfunction may have triggered the current round of scrutiny, but outside interveners will not limit their systemic fixes to the bottom feeders. Deniers of the ongoing crisis can persist in their positions, or they can propose solutions, as I have.

The Times has pulled a loose thread on the entire legal education establishment’s sweater.

LABOR DAY

Labor Day marks the end of summer. It’s also a time to reflect on our relationship with work. Lawyers should do that more often. In that regard, some big law leaders will find false comfort in their 2015 Am Law Midlevel Associates Survey ranking.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, “Rethinking Work,” Swarthmore College Professor Barry Schwartz suggests that the long-held belief that people “work to live” dates to Adam Smith’s 1776 statement in “Wealth of Nations”: “It is in the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can.”

Schwartz notes that Smith’s idea helped to shape the scientific management movement that created systems to minimize the need for skill and judgment. As a result, workers found their jobs less meaningful. Over generations, Smith’s words became a self-fulfilling prophecy as worker disengagement became pervasive.

“Rather than exploiting a fact about human nature,” Schwartz writes, “[Smith and his descendants] were creating a fact about human nature.”

The result has been a world in which managers structure tasks so that most workers will never satisfy aspirations essential for job satisfaction. Widespread workplace disengagement — afflicting more than two-thirds of all workers, according to the most recent Gallup poll — has become an accepted fact of life.

Lawyers Take Note

Schwartz’s observations start with those performing menial tasks: “Maybe you’re a call center employee who wants to help customers solve their problems — but you find out that all that matters is how quickly you terminate each call.”

“Or you’re a teacher who wants to educate kids — but you discover that only their test scores matter,” he continues.

And then he takes us to the legal profession: “Or you’re a corporate lawyer who wants to serve his client with care and professionalism — but you learn that racking up billable hours is all that really counts.”

More than Money

Many Americans — especially lawyers who make decent incomes — have the luxury of thinking beyond how they’ll pay for their next meal. But relative affluence is no excuse to avoid the implications of short-term thinking that has taken the legal profession and other noble pursuits to an unfortunate place.

You might think that short-term profit-maximizing managers would heed the studies demonstrating that worker disengagement has a financial cost. But in most big law firms, that hasn’t happened. There’s a reason: Those at the top of the pyramid make a lot of money on eat-what-you-kill business models. They can’t see beyond their own short-term self-interest — which takes them only to their retirement age.

Maintaining their wealth has also been a straightforward proposition: Pull up the ladder while increasing the income gap within equity partnerships. The doubling of big firm leverage ratios since 1985 means that it’s now twice as difficult to become an equity partner in an Am Law 50 firm. Top-to-bottom compensation spreads within most equity partnerships have exploded from three- or four-to-one in 1990 to more than 10-to-1 today. At some firms, it’s 20-to-1.

What Problem?

Then again, maybe things aren’t so bad after all. The most recent Am Law Survey of mid-level associates reports that overall satisfaction among third- through fifth-level associates is its highest in a decade. But here’s the underlying and problematic truth: Big law associates have adjusted to the new normal.

Thirty-one percent of Am Law Survey respondents said they didn’t know what they’d be doing in five years. Only 14 percent expected to make non-equity partner by then. They see the future and have reconciled themselves to the harsh reality that their firms have no place for them in it.

No one feels sorry for big firm associates earning six-figure incomes, but perhaps someone should. As Professor Schwartz observes, work is about much more than the money. In that respect, he offers suggestions that few large firms will adopt: “giving employees more of a say in how they do their jobs… making sure we offer them opportunities to learn and grow… encouraging them to suggest improvements to the work process and listening to what they say.”

I’ll add one specially applicable to big law firms: Provide meaningful career paths that reward talent and don’t make advancement dependent upon the application of arbitrary short-term metrics, such as leverage ratios, billable hours, and client billings.

What’s the Mission?

Schwartz’s suggestions are a sharp contrast to the way most big law firm partners operate. They exclude their young attorneys from firm decision-making processes (other than recruiting new blood to the ranks of those who will leave within five years of their arrival). Compensation structures reward partners who hoard clients rather than mentor and develop talent for the eventual transition of firm business to the next generation. The behavior of partners and the processes of the firm discourage dissent.

“But most important,” Schwartz concludes, “we need to emphasize the ways in which an employee’s work makes other people’s lives at least a little bit better.”

Compare that to the dominant message that most big law firm leaders convey to their associates and fellow partners: We need to emphasize the ways in which an attorney’s work makes current equity partners wealthier.

Law firm leaders can develop solutions, or they can perpetuate the problem. It all starts from the top.

THE LAWYER BUBBLE — Early Reviews and Upcoming Events

The New York Times published my op-ed, “The Tyranny of the Billable Hour,” tackling the larger implications of the recent DLA Piper hourly billing controversy.

And there’s this from Bloomberg Business Week: “Big Law Firms Are in ‘Crisis.’ Retired Lawyer Says.”

In related news, with the release of my new book, The Lawyer Bubble – A Profession in Crisis, my weekly posts will give way (temporarily) to a growing calendar of events, including:

TUESDAY, APRIL 2, 2013, 10:00 am to 11:00 am (CDT)
Illinois Public Media
“Focus” with Jim Meadows
WILL-AM – 580 (listen online at http://will.illinois.edu/focus)

TUESDAY, APRIL 2, 2013, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (CDT)
“Think” with Krys Boyd
KERA – Public Media for North Texas – 90.1 FM (online at http://www.kera.org/think/)

THURSDAY, APRIL 4, 2013, 11:00 am to Noon (EDT)
Washington, DC
The Diane Rehm Show
WAMU (88.5 FM in DC area) and NPR

FRIDAY, APRIL 5, 2013, 10:45 am to 11:00 am (EDT)
New York City
The Brian Lehrer Show
WNYC/NPR (93.9 FM/820 AM in NYC area)
(http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/)

SATURDAY, APRIL 6, 2013, Noon (EDT)
New Hampshire Public Radio
“Word of Mouth” with Virginia Prescott
WEVO – 89.1 FM in Concord; available online at http://nhpr.org/post/lawyer-bubble)

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10, 2013, 8:00 am to 9:00 am (CDT)
The Joy Cardin Show
Wisconsin Public Radio (available online at http://www.wpr.org/cardin/)

FRIDAY, APRIL 12, 2013
The Shrinking Pyramid: Implications for Law Practice and the Legal Profession” — Panel discussion
Georgetown University Law Center
Center for the Study of the Legal Profession
600 New Jersey Avenue NW
Location: Gewirz – 12th floor
Washington, D.C.

TUESDAY, APRIL 23, 2013, 7:00 pm (CDT) (C-SPAN 2 is tentatively planning to cover this event)
The Book Stall at Chestnut Court
811 Elm Street
Winnetka, IL

Here are some early reviews:

The Lawyer Bubble is an important book, carefully researched, cogently argued and compellingly written. It demonstrates how two honorable callings – legal education and the practice of law – have become, far too often, unscrupulous rackets.”
—Scott Turow, author of Presumed Innocent and other novel

“Harper is a seasoned insider unafraid to say what many other lawyers in his position might…written with keen insight and scathing accusations…. Harper brings his analytical and persuasive abilities to bear in a highly entertaining and riveting narrative…. The Lawyer Bubbleis recommended reading for anyone working in a law related field. And for law school students—especially prospective ones—it really should be required reading.”
New York Journal of Books

“Anyone looking into a career in law would be well advised to read this thoroughly eye-opening warning.”
Booklist, starred review

“[Harper] is perfectly positioned to reflect on alarming developments that have brought the legal profession to a most unfortunate place…. Essential reading for anyone contemplating a legal career.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“[Harper] burns his bridges in this scathing indictment of law schools and big law firms…. his insights and admonitions are consistently on point.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Imagine that the elite lawyers of BigLaw and the legal academy were put on trial for their alleged negligence and failed stewardship. Imagine further that the State had at its disposal one of the nation’s most tenacious trial lawyers to doggedly build a complete factual record and then argue the case. The result would be The Lawyer Bubble. If I were counsel to the elite lawyers of BigLaw and the legal academy, I would advise my clients to settle the case.”
—William D. Henderson, Director of the Center on the Global Legal Profession and Professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law

“With wit and insight,The Lawyer Bubble offers a compelling portrait of the growing crisis in legal education and the practice of law. This book is essential reading for anyone concerned about the profession or contemplating a legal career.”
—Deborah L. Rhode, Professor of Law and Director of the Center on the Legal Profession, Stanford University

“This is a fine and important book, thoughtful and beautifully written. It makes the case – in a responsible and sober tone – that we are producing far too many lawyers for far too small a segment of American society. It is a must-read for leaders of law firms, law schools, and the bar, as the legal profession continues its wrenching transition from a profession into just another business.”
—Daniel S. Bowling III, Senior Lecturing Fellow, Duke Law School

“In this superb book, Steven Harper documents, ties together and suggests remedies for the deceit that motivates expanding law school enrollment in the face of a shrinking job market, the gaming of law school rankings and the pernicious effect of greed on the leadership of many of our nation’s leading law firms. The lessons he draws are symptomatic, and go well beyond the documented particulars.”
—Robert Helman, Partner and former Chairman (1984-98), Mayer Brown LLP; Lecturer, University of Chicago Law School

“Every sentient lawyer realizes that the legal profession is in crisis, but nobody explains the extent of the problem as well as Steven Harper. Fortunately, he also proposes some solutions – so there is still room for hope. This is an essential book.”
—Steven Lubet, author of Fugitive Justice and Lawyers’ Poker

“Steven Harper’s The Lawyer Bubble is an expression of tough love for the law, law firms and the people who work in them. The clear message is take control of your destiny and your firm to avoid the serious jeopardy that confronts far too many firms today. Whether you are a partner, associate, or law student, you should read this compassionate and forceful work.”
—Edwin B. Reeser, Former managing partner, author, and consultant on law practice management

“Harper chronicles the disruption of his once-genteel profession with considerable sadness, and places the blame squarely at the wing-tipped feet of two breeds of scoundrel: law school deans, and executive committees that have run big law firms …” –“Bar Examined” – Book Review in The Washington Monthly (March/April 2013)

HAPPINESS IS…CRAVATH?

Big law’s future has become big news. On September 25, The New York Times published a special section that included several articles on large firms; two are particularly interesting.

Culture Keeps Firms Together in Trying Times” discusses the handful of large firms that have shunned the widespread eat-what-you-kill approach to partner compensation. It focuses on three firms, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Debevoise & Plimpton, and Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, all of which have retained lock-step compensation systems. For any class of associates, those who survive to partner continue advancing together throughout their careers.

“The only way a partner does better is if the firm does better,” says Debevoise presiding partner Michael W. Blair describing the behavior that follows such structural incentives.

Lock-step is a sharp contrast to most other big firms, which follow what Dewey & LeBoeuf’s management called the “barbell” system: Lots of service partners on one side of the barbell balance out a handful of star partners on the other side. Then-Dewey partner Jeffrey Kessler rationalized the yawning equity partner compensation gaps that this approach creates: “The value for the stars has gone up, while the value of service partners has gone down.”

Not worth it

The Times quotes Cleary managing partner Mark Leddy’s answer to the Kesslers of the world: “People who want to be a star and make $10 million a year don’t fit in here…Breaking the lock-step system for them would be an unacceptable cost to our culture.”

Why does culture matter? There are many answers, but Major, Lindsey & Africa’s recent compensation survey may have identified an important one. Almost eighty percent of partners in lock-step compensation systems are satisfied or very satisfied with their work. A closer look at the MLA survey reveals that the combined group of satisfied and very satisfied partners is about the same for lock-step as for non-lock-step firms. But the lock-step firms’ have a big advantage in the very satisfied group — fifty-five percent compared to only twenty-six percent for non-lock-step firms.

Satisfied versus very satisfied

That leads to James B. Stewart’s observations about Cravath, where he was an associate in the 1970s. In “A Law Firm Where Money Seemed Secondary,” Stewart notes that all attorneys in his firm were intelligent, well-credentialed and hard working, but those advancing to partner had something else in common: They loved their work. It gave them a huge competitive advantage over those who didn’t. Returning to the MLA survey, I think Stewart may have captured a significant difference between the lawyers who are very satisfied and those who are merely satisfied: Attitudes about work affect performance.

Stewart also notes that “of the 20 or so associates hired each year, one or two might be chosen to be a partner.” He concludes that “over the ensuing decades, Cravath doesn’t seem to have changed much.” He’s right.

But the rest of the large law firm segment of the profession has. In fact, many have modeled themselves after the Cravath attrition-and-leverage model, but they added an unfortunate twist away from lock-step compensation: Partners eat what they kill, so every year’s compensation review is a new self-justification exercise. That incentive structure produces a much different culture; most of it is ugly and little of it enhances a firm’s long-run stability.

About the associates…

Before getting too misty-eyed over life at Cravath, it’s worth pausing on one more data point. In the most recent Am Law Survey of Midlevel Associate Satisfaction, Cravath placed 119 out of 129 firms — down from 111 in 2011. The firm has been dropping steadily on that list since 2010, when it placed 84th out of 137. (Both Cleary Gottlieb and Debevoise did much better.)

A closer analysis suggests that Cravath associates do, indeed, enjoy their work. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to enjoy it enough to offset the things that place the firm near the bottom of the satisfaction survey.

Cravath scored above the all-firm averages in work-related subcategories, including quality of work assigned, opportunities to work with partners, and level of responsibility. But it received low marks in other subcategories, including likelihood of staying two years, morale, communication about partnership prospects, and family-friendliness. Lock-step partner compensation isn’t a panacea, but imagine how much worse a place like Cravath would be without it.

Following the money

Perhaps the most telling comment about the interaction between compensation and firm culture comes from former Dewey & LeBoeuf partner Ralph Ferrara who spent twenty-three years at lock-step Debevoise before making what he describes as “an imprudent decision” in leaving: “In my heart, I never left Debevoise; it’s a place that I still love to this day.”

If the bankruptcy judge approves the proposed former partners compensation plan, Ferrara will pay almost $3.4 million to help fund repayments to Dewey’s creditors. Even so, given the amounts he reportedly made at Dewey, his move in 2005 was probably advantageous financially. I wonder if the additional money was worth it to him — and how his heirs will spend it.

DEWEY: PROFILES IN SOMETHING

Some key players in the Dewey & LeBoeuf debacle are also among the profession’s leaders; that makes them role models. Some teach at law schools; that means they’re shaping tomorrow’s attorneys, too. But how do they look and sound without the Dewey spin machine?

Some readers might worry that spotlighting them erodes civility. But civility goes to the nature of discourse; it can never mean turning a blind eye to terrible things that a few powerful people do to innocent victims. Sadly, the personalities and trends that unraveled Dewey aren’t unique to it.

As to former chairman Steven H. Davis, David Lat’s analysis at Above the Law and Peter Lattman’s report at the NY Times  are sufficient; there’s no reason to pile on. Rather, I’ll look at the “Gang of Four” plus one: the men comprising the four-man office of the chairman who replaced Davis as the firm came unglued, and Morton Pierce. Here’s a preview.

Morton Pierce was chairman of Dewey Ballantine when merger discussions with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe failed and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & McRae entered the picture. After spearheading the deal with Davis, Pierce locked in a multi-year $6 million annual contract that he reportedly enhanced in the fall of 2011. In his May 3 resignation later, he reportedly claimed that the firm owed him $61 million.

As he spoke with The Wall Street Journal while packing boxes for White & Case, Pierce said that he hadn’t been actively involved in firm management since 2010. But the Dewey & LeBoeuf website said otherwise: “Morton Pierce is a Vice Chair of Dewey & LeBoeuf and co-chair of the Mergers and Acquisitions Practice Group. He is also a member of the firm’s global Executive Committee.” [UPDATE: Two days after this May 15 post, Pierce’s page on the Dewey & LeBoeuf website finally disappeared. Such are the perils of losing an IT department too early in the unraveling process.] My post on Pierce will be titled “Accepting Responsibility.”

Martin Bienenstock, one of the Gang of Four, was an early big name hire for the newly formed Dewey & LeBoeuf. In November 2007, he left Weil, Gotshal & Manges after 30 years there. He got a guaranteed compensation deal and sat on the Executive Committee as his new firm careened toward disaster. As Dewey & LeBoeuf’s end neared, he maintained a consistent position throughout: “There are no plans to file bankruptcy. And anyone who says differently doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

No one asked if he had a realistic plan for the firm’s survival. Ten days later, he and members of his bankruptcy group were on the way to Proskauer Rose. The title of my upcoming post on Pierce could work for Bienenstock, too. But because he teaches at Harvard Law School, I’m going to call it “Partnership, Professionalism, and What To Tell the Kids.”

Jeffrey Kessler, another of the Gang of Four, was also a lateral hire from Weil, Gotshal & Manges. He joined Dewey Ballantine in 2003. As a member of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Executive Committee, he became a vocal proponent of the firm’s star system that gave top producers multi-year, multimillion-dollar contracts — one of which was his.

A sports law expert, Kessler analogized big-name attorneys to top athletes: “The value for the stars has gone up, while the value of service partners has gone down.” The title of my post on Kessler will be “Stars In Their Eyes.”

Richard Shutran, the third of the Gang of Four, was a Dewey Ballantine partner before the 2007 merger. He became co-chair of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Corporate Department and Chairman of its Global Finance Practice Group. At the time of the firm’s $125 million bond offering in 2010, he told Bloomberg News that the bonds’ interest rates were more favorable than those from the firm’s bank. In March 2012, he said Dewey was in routine negotiations with lenders over its credit line. He also dismissed The American Lawyer’s retroactive revision of Dewey’s 2010 and 2011 financial performance numbers as much ado about nothing. My post on Shutran will be “Running the Numbers.”

L. Charles Landgraf, the last of the four, began his career at LeBoeuf Lamb 34 years ago. I don’t know him (or any of  the others), but my hunch is that Charley (as people call him) is a decent guy. My post on him will be called “The Plight of the Loyal Company Man.”

In future installments, we’ll take a closer look at each of them. Sometimes it won’t be pretty, but neither is what some of them personify about the profession’s evolution.